Here is a closer look. (Remember, you can click on a link in the name header of each train that takes you to a detailed page of route information at Amtrak.com)
SOUTHWEST CHIEF (trains 3 / 4)
SUNSET LIMITED (trains 1 / 2)
Some Amtrak passengers may remember when this train ran all of the way to Florida (first to Jacksonville, then later to Orlando). The service to Florida was suspended after damage to tracks along the Gulf Coast as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Though the damage was long ago repaired, the service to Florida never resumed, and as of this writing (July 2011) there is no indication at all that it ever will.
TEXAS EAGLE (trains 21 / 22 and 421 / 422 )
The Texas Eagle is a daily train that operates daily from San Antonio to Chicago. Important stops include Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas, Little Rock and St. Louis.
Three days a week a sleeping car and a coach that begin their trip in Los Angeles headed eastbound on train 2 (the Sunset Limited) are uncoupled in San Antonio and then coupled to train 22 that leaves San Antonio headed to Chicago.
A passenger in a Chicago-bound sleeping car or coach does not have to change trains in San Antonio, because the car itself gets switched from one train to the other, but because of a 9 ½ hour layover in San Antonio it makes for longer overall travel time from the origination in Los Angeles to a final destination of Chicago. (The process works in reverse for westbound travelers, with cars that begin in Chicago being uncoupled in San Antonio and coupled to westbound train 1.) This is the one train that would produce a 4 day, 3 night overall travel time from the west coast to Chicago because of the more circuitous route and long layover.
Passengers booked eastbound on the Texas Eagle between Los Angeles (and intermediate points up to but not including San Antonio) to cities beyond San Antonio as far as Chicago are typically booked on train 422. In reverse, they are booked on train 421.
CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR (trains 5 / 6)
The California Zephyr, heir to the name of the renowned train that did not even live to Amtrak day (discontinued March 1969), runs between Emeryville (Oakland) and Chicago. (San Francisco is served via a bus connection from Emeryville to San Francisco over the Bay Bridge.) Noteworthy stops include Sacramento, Reno, Salt Lake City, Grand Junction, Denver, and Omaha.
This train is considered among the best for scenery because of the rugged crossing of the Sierras and the long stretch along the Colorado River and in the Rockies. Unlike the original postwar California Zephyr, the train does not traverse the Feather River Canyon (except for the very rare detour) but instead runs on the former Southern Pacific Donner Pass route, which was part of first transcontinental line when completed in 1869.
EMPIRE BUILDER (trains 7 / 8 and 27 / 28)
Train 28 on the other hand starts in Portland, crosses the Columbia River over to Vancouver, Wash., and then makes its eastward turn to run along the Columbia for about 200 miles to Pasco, Wash. The Portland-originating section of the Empire Builder includes coaches, sleepers, and a lounge car. It continues to Spokane for a midnight rendezvous with the Seattle-originating train 8.
In Spokane, the two trains are coupled together to become one train operating east to Chicago. Westbound, it works in reverse; the train splits into two pieces in Spokane for the final legs of the trip to Seattle (train 7) and Portland (train 27). Portland-bound and Seattle-bound coaches and sleepers are clearly identified, so it is seldom that a passenger needs to move from one car to another in Spokane.
Between Spokane and Chicago the principal stops are Whitefish, Mont., Havre, Mont., Fargo, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee.
Like the California Zephyr, this train is highly regarded for great scenery in Oregon and Washington, Glacier Park, the vast reaches of Montana's Big Sky Country, and some pretty landscapes in Wisconsin. By most accounts, the on-board service on the Empire Builder is presently the best among all of Amtrak’s long-distance trains.
Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Backward to Routes - Long-distance trains - North to South
Forward to Routes - Long-distance trains - Eastern (Chicago to the east coast)